WASHINGTON — Not the crisis in Iraq. Not tumult in Ukraine or unrest in Syria. Nothing, it seems, would dissuade Secretary of State John F. Kerry from what has been a decades-long cause: trying to save the oceans.
This week, Kerry led a two-day conference on ocean conservation in which he stood side by side with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, answered questions on Twitter with Bill Nye the Science Guy, and repeatedly warned — in speeches, in statements, and in an interview with Katie Couric — that the health of the world’s oceans is in peril.
As part of the conference, President Obama announced executive actions Tuesday that the administration is taking to try to protect the oceans. The most far-reaching will expand protection of the central Pacific Ocean, making nearly 782,000 square miles off-limits from fishing, energy exploration, and other activities.
Obama is also taking several actions that could affect the extensive fishing economy in New England. The president is directing federal agencies to develop a compressive program aimed at deterring illegal fishing and preventing illegally caught fish from entering the marketplace. Black market fishing comprises up to 20 percent of wild marine fish caught each year globally, according to administration estimates.
The administration this week also announced $102 million in grants to help communities on the East Coast plan for future storms in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Massachusetts will receive a modest allocation: $13.5 million for four projects that will protect Boston Harbor, restore habitats on Martha’s Vineyard, and help protect the coast in Northeastern Massachusetts.
All told, Kerry said, more than $1.8 billion had been committed for action on the oceans as part of the conference.
“Increasingly, the ocean is threatened,” Kerry said during a briefing with reporters, at which he recounted dipping his toes into Buzzards Bay as a young boy.
The two-day “Our Ocean” conference, attended by world leaders and others from more than 80 countries, was alternatively star-studded and high-minded.
“What we need is action, sustained activism, and courageous political leadership,” said DiCaprio, himself an avid diver who on Tuesday pledged $7 million to ocean conservation projects in the next two years. “We cannot afford to be bystanders in this pre-apocalyptic scenario.”
Just after DiCaprio left the stage, there was a more wonky discussion about ocean acidification moderated by Scott Doney, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
Even critics who want Kerry to go further and provide more concrete steps praised him for elevating the issue of the oceans’ health to a new level.
“We’ve never had anything like this before,” said Phil Kline, a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace USA, which protested part of the conference to urge Kerry to support more protections in the high seas. “We’ve never had a secretary of state who has elevated this issue like this.”
Kerry appeared sensitive to the fact that world events were rapidly unfolding during the conference, and he noted that he wouldn’t attend the whole conference because he had “much to do with respect to Iraq and other emergencies that we face.”
“For anyone who questions why are we here when there are so many areas of conflict and so many issues of vital concern as there are . . . no one should mistake that the protection of our oceans is a vital international security issue,” he said.
One of the key issues raised is one that Kerry has long dealt with in Massachusetts: overfishing.
“I learned this first hand in Massachusetts, in our relationship with fishermen,” Kerry said. “There’s this violent sense of injustice done when the regulators regulate because the captains don’t believe the science on which the regulation is based. So you have this disrespect to some degree, and even flaunting in other instances, on the regulations.”
John Pappalardo, executive director of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Alliance, said he generally agreed with Kerry’s comments. There has been deep distrust in the fishing industry around some of the catch limits they are required to abide by — and they feel unfairly blamed for the reduction in fish population that might be also the result of global warming.
“Everybody needs to be willing to give up some of their positions and form new partnerships,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll end up with what, jellyfish, flooded cities, and everybody blaming each other?”
“As far as the fishing industry in New England goes, it’s changing,” Pappalardo added. “A lot of people think it’s dying or already died. I think it’s reorganizing. It’s like the auto industry in the ’70s, where it needed to reorganize and modernize.”
Among those Kerry asked to attend was Roger Berkowitz, chief executive of Legal Seafoods. Berkowitz has been criticized in the past for flouting government regulations and what constitutes sustainable seafood. In 2011, he hosted a dinner of “blacklisted” fish.
The stance seemed to run counter to the event’s theme.
In an interview, Berkowitz said he was flattered to have been asked to attend. He said he considers himself a conservationist (“otherwise I’m not going to be in business very long”), but he questions whether overfishing is still a problem.
“Certainly, it was an issue going through the ’80s,” Berkowitz said. “Has there been times we’ve overfished? Absolutely. I think the regulations are tight now. Before we even put those in place, we should really know what’s out there.”